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Resignations, walkouts and protests mark Champaign Unit 4 school board meetings this spring

Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education member Heather Vazquez (right) explains to a group of parents and community members on Monday, March 25 that the school board meeting ended early because some members walked out.

CHAMPAIGN — Two school board members walked out of Monday’s Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education meeting, preventing the others from taking any action. 

This follows the resignation of two other board members, including Jamar Brown, earlier in March.

“After my first term, I dubbed that experience as the best thing that I never wanted to do. Unfortunately, the second time around, I cannot say I’m having the same experience. This time around has been filled with mistrust, missteps and misinformation,” Brown said during his resignation.

Meanwhile, parents are showing up to school board meetings in droves, even when there isn’t much on the agenda. 

So, what’s going on at Unit 4? 

Why did the board meeting end early on Monday?

The remaining five Champaign school board members were fighting over when to elect their new vice president. 

Three school board members were ready to vote on Monday, while two others wanted to wait until the empty seats on the board were filled. Those ready to vote did offer to compromise and elect the vice president temporarily. 

The minority exercised their power by walking out, leaving the rest without a quorum, or enough officials, to legally continue the meeting.

Longtime board member and former board president Amy Armstrong walked out with Betsy Holder, a lawyer first elected to the role in 2023. On the other side were current board president Gianina Baker, Heather Vasquez and Bruce Brown. All are longtime members of the board.

Why did two school board members resign? 

Neither Jamar Brown nor Mark Thies has responded to requests for comment on their resignations from the Champaign Unit 4 Board of Education. 

Both were one year into their term after being elected in 2023, but they were otherwise different as candidates.

Jamar Brown announced his resignation at a school board meeting on March 4. He said the board has faced plenty of unwarranted criticism, but he is more alarmed by what the board and administration are doing to themselves. He said an inability to adjust has left the district leadership focusing on adult issues instead of what students need. 

Thies was the more conservative of the two as a candidate. He emailed his resignation letter to the board members on March 19. He wrote that his vision was not aligned with Unit 4’s vision. He was also critical of district leaders for not being transparent or professional enough. 

Why are parents upset? 

A group of Booker T. Washington STEM Academy parents has been organizing protests at board meetings to protest the potential transfer of a beloved assistant principal. 

They have been publicizing their protests through Facebook, including the Unit 4 Families for a Smarter Solution Facebook page. Created in September 2022, the Unit 4 Families for a Smarter Solution original slogan was “Change Not Chaos” and they opposed Unit 4’s attempts to further desegregate its schools by socioeconomics, which would potentially move 90% of elementary students to different schools. That ended up not being popular among any parent demographic, but this group led the opposition. 

Their Facebook group has continued to be an active space for organizing parents.

A petition is circulating to get Superintendent Shelia Boozer fired. Is that coming from this group? 

No. A completely different set of parents have been organizing to get signatures for the petition on the Unit 4 Families for a Smarter Solution Facebook page, according to one of the BTW protest organizers. 

The petition says it was sparked by Boozer’s response to a shooting near Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, delay in spending gun violence prevention money and the potential transfer BTW administrators.

Booker T. Washington STEM Academy students protest the rumored firing of their administrators outside a Unit 4 Board of Education meeting on Monday, Feb. 12. While the petition against Boozer cites the incident, few students or parents at the protest wanted her to be fired. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Former board member Elizabeth Sotiropoulos, who did not run for reelection last year, is critical of the petition. 

She said nearly all the points in the petition are either unfair or untrue. For example, the petition says Boozer has failed to meet the goals of her contract related to racial equity. 

“She is somebody who has very openly and honestly addressed the disparities among our academic and disciplinary outcomes between our white students and black students. That was not something that Judy [Wiegand] or Susan [Zola] could openly talk about.”

Sotiropoulos noted that people appear to be more critical of Boozer than they were of either of the previous superintendents.

Sotiropoulos acknowledged that while Unit 4’s delay in spending gun violence prevention money was not ideal, the district’s inability to hire someone to carry out the work as envisioned by the administrators was understandable. She said the context of a national school staff shortage matters.

“They are so understaffed to a degree that I don’t think the community understands,” she said. “Are there people who shouldn’t be in their jobs? 100 percent. But if we don’t talk about the systemic issues behind all of this, then it just seems like there’s a bunch of inept people working for the district.”

Boozer herself declined to do an interview.

What happens next? 

The Unit 4 school board plans to appoint new members in April. 

The board will accept applications until April 1 and will conduct public interviews with candidates on April 9. The appointed members will then serve for a term of one year.

The News-Gazette reports two parents have already submitted their resumes. 

Meanwhile, the petition requesting Boozer be fired has 800 signatures. 

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Updated Monday, Apr 1, 2024 at 5 P.M. In the first version of the story, we were mistaken about which parent group is behind the protests at school board meetings. We have updated the story to be clear that Booker T. Washington STEM Academy families have been organizing the protests. We have also taken out quotes from a participant at last Monday’s rally, at that individual’s request.

Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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